The Imerial Chinese Civil Exam System

Categories: ChinaEducation

The Chinese civil examination system from 600 AD to the industrial revolution, was the most progressive system of its kind in the world. Theoretically the government’s exams allowed any Chinese man an equal chance at even the highest positions in politics and society. In practice this may not have always been the case, but at least all social barriers were removed from one’s path. Only economic realities may have put individuals in unequal positions, but that remains true of our modern society.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the Imperial Chinese civil service exam system and the impacts it had on the Chinese political system. To do this, a brief background of Confucianism and the Chinese educational system will be given. Next, the Exam System can be dealt with, as it began in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) through to its end during the neo-Confucian Qing Dynasty (1644-1911A.D.). Finally, how this system has shaped the Chinese political vantage will be discussed.

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Master Kung or Kung Fu-tzu (551-479 BC) Master Kung lived during what is known as the Eastern Zhou period. This period of political disunity from 770 BC to 221 BC sparked an intellectual outpouring in China known as the era of a “hundred schools.” Wandering teachers would move from state to state offering their services and ideas to patrons, about how to improve their rule. Confucius was just one of these traveling teachers who thought his ideas, if followed, could eventually bring the political conflict and wars in China to an end.

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During his lifetime, Confucius was never able to put his ideas into practice, and he died thinking himself a failure. His ideas, though, were remembered by his devoted followers, and recorded after his death in what is called the Analects (4th century BC). Confucius’ ideas about morality were not abstract, but pragmatic, which meant morality was not determined by absolutes as much as it was by circumstances and relationships. The basic relationships a person had in society determined or defined moral action. The goal was to ensure a person performed his key roles and obligations well. Confucius seemed to have a very positive view of human nature in that he believed that there was an inclination in people to behave morally. However, he also believed this inclination had to be inspired by proper moral models. This was the role of the Emperor and his magistrates .

The historical importance China has placed on education is derived from the teachings of Confucius and philosophers of the middle and late Chou eras. Fundamentally, these philosophies taught that social harmony could be achieved only if humans were free from deprivation and given proper education. Confucius taught that all people possessed the same potential, and that education was the corrective means to curb any tendencies to stray from ethical behavior.

From the very first, Confucius made education available to students from all classes. Education in China has thus been an equalizing force from ancient times. It became the means by which individuals from even the humblest backgrounds could rise to great heights. Through the ethics of Confucius, which infused the traditional curriculum, officials found a powerful mechanism for implementing the ethical and social norms of Chinese society.

Confucius’ ideas did not become popular overnight. Nor did everyone see them as a sound foundation for establishing a strong centralized government. The First Emperor of the Ch’in (Qin) dynasty, who had unified China under his rule and ended the period of the Warring States, thought Confucian ideas were subversive to his rule. He ordered all of Confucius’ writings, except for copies in the Imperial Library, to be burned. In 212 BC, he buried-alive 460 scholars who were convicted of slandering the emperor and spreading “heretical ideas to confuse the public.” Others were exiled to the frontiers to serve as common soldiers.

The Ch’in dynasty, though, proved to be one of the most short-lived in Chinese history. Shortly after the First Emperor’s death, his dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Han dynasty. It was under the Han dynasty that Confucianism became established as the dominant school of thought among imperial officials .

The Han were the first to try to establish a more bureaucratic form of central government. They divided the government into 3 branches: 1) the military staff; 2) the civil bureaucracy; and 3) the censors whose task it was to police the officials of both the other branches. To run these branches, the Han Emperors needed a literate class they could rely upon. Convinced that people steeped in Confucian philosophy would make the most honest and moral of officials, these Emperors recruited future officials through a system of examinations that tested their competency in Confucian philosophy. Therefore, anyone who wished to have a career as a government official, a highly coveted position in society, had to all but memorize the Confucian classics in the hopes of doing well on these examinations. In the early stages of this system, government officials were supposed to nominate people to take the main exams. These men were already supposed to reflect good Confucian virtues. They should be “straightforward critics”, “morally correct men”, “men qualified to care for the people”, and “learned scholars”.

In contrast to western education, particularly in regard to the model of higher education in Medieval and Renaissance universities where students were encouraged to engage in disputation, traditional Chinese education consisted primarily of learning and memorization of the Classics. This formula became standardized by the seventh century AD. Candidates for the Civil Service Imperial Exams were required to memorize a vast amount of classical material and were never required to demonstrate the ability to either theorize or challenge a particular premise.

By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) the exam system had taken the form that it would follow until its eventual demise in 1912. Under the Ming, there were three main sets of exams. The first stage was a local certification exam by provincial educational intendants. If passed, the candidate received the title of “cultivated talent” and could now wear a distinctive cap and sashes that marked his status. He was also exempted from state labor service. Often, candidates were recruited as private tutors for well-to-do families. Periodically, these “cultivated talents” had to prove they were still competent by taking the exam once more and if they failed, they were deprived of their status. Having passed the first exam, all candidates could now take a provincial exam that was offered once every three years in the provincial capital. The exam took place in three daylong sessions spread over a week. Those who passed were now called “elevated men” and they were entitled to more honors and privileges. This status was permanent. Those who passed could also serve in a lower official post. But more importantly, they could compete in the metropolitan exam offered in the Imperial capital a few months after the provincial exams. The metropolitan exam was part one of the third and final stage. Those who passed became “presented scholars” or “doctors”.

After passing this exam, there was still another stage or hurdle — the palace examination — which was used to determine the ranking of those who passed. The highest ranked were appointed to the Hanlin academy in the expectation that the most capable would eventually rise into the Grand Secretariat, the body that oversaw all the branches of government. Those promoted to the Hanlin academy were publicly acclaimed as heroes. Those who were not promoted into the Hanlin academy became county magistrates and middle-ranking positions in the civil service. The curriculum for all of these exams was the same. It was based on what were called the Four Books or Classics. These were 1) the Analects of Confucius, 2) the book of Mencius, and two short Confucian essays, 3) the Great Learning and 4) the Doctrine of the Mean .

Even though the tests focused entirely on the Four Classics, scholars would have been expected to know something about the Five Classics as well. These were books of ancient learning from early in the Zhou dynasty that by tradition Confucius was suppose to have edited and preserved. They were: 1) I-ching, the book of Changes, 2) Ancient Writings, a collection of sayings and speeches attributed to figures early in the Zhou dynasty, 3) Classic of Songs, a collection of the earliest poetry, 4) Spring and Autumn Annals, chronicles of Zhou dynasty from 722 to 481 BC written in the state of Lu, 5) the Classic of Rituals–collections outlining rituals and codes of behavior from the early Zhou dynasty.

Needless to say, the competition in these exams was fierce. Only about 1,200 people passed the provincial exams every three years. About 288 on average would then pass the metropolitan exam. Only about 10% of those who passed the first exam passed the provincial exam, and only about 10% of those who passed the second exam, passed the third. This meant that only 1% of those who passed the first exam managed to survive this ordeal and pass all three exams and then a fraction of one percent were appointed to the Hanlin academy. The personal suffering that individuals underwent both in the preparation and in the taking of these exams has become part of Chinese lore. Candidates were known to repeatedly fail exams. Some committed suicide because of the disgrace that these failures brought to their families. Others continued taking exams even as very old, gray haired men. For those who rose through the ranks by passing these exams and being selected for administrative positions, it meant that their clans or families also rose in social prestige and wealth.

The fundamental justification for the Chinese Imperial Exams was that appointees to civil service positions were not to be chosen through special or inherited privilege, but through an individual’s own abilities. For centuries, the might of China was established militarily, often by emperors from humble origins who had toppled existing dynasties. However, once in control, these emperors soon found that the actual governance of China would require the administrative services of thousands of bureaucrats. The civil service examination was thus a means for creating such a body of men, and it became a meritocratic strategy that was emulated by France and Britain in the nineteenth century when these countries began needing public servants for their far-flung imperial outpost

The very democratic nature of Chinese education was established from the beginning by Confucius himself. It offered a path of upward mobility to anyone who could survive the rigors of study and examinations. A traditional saying attributed to Confucius states that “those who work with their heads will rule, while those who work with their hands will serve.” To that end, education became a strategy for survival in a country where poverty and hardship had challenged the lives of millions for countless millennia. The meritocratic nature of these exams has been noted in Chinese history: During the Ming Dynasty nearly half, about 47 percent, of those who passed the highest-level examinations, were from families with no official connections.

However, the Exam System’s democratic merit is by no means an unquestioned fact. While it has been argued that this meritocracy provided a level democracy to the average person, by providing a method of social and political mobility without hereditary restraints; the opposing view — that this vision of socio-political mobility is an illusion, and that in reality there were significant economic, social and political restraints that formed a prohibitive barrier to the average person – has also been defended. The early European idealization of the examinations is reflected by Franois Quesnay, writing in 1767: “There is no hereditary nobility in China; a man’s merit and capacity alone mark the rank he is to take. Children of the prime minister of the empire have their fortune to make and enjoy no special consideration…. To succeed him in his dignities and to enjoy his reputation, the son must elevate himself by the same steps; thus all of the son’s hopes depend on study, as the only avenue to honors.”

The appeal of this system is obvious when compared to Imperial China’s Western contemporaries. By the time these examinations were implemented in China the Greek democracies were long dead, and no government that followed in the west allowed for the possibility of such social mobility as existed in China. Everywhere in the west limitations on political power were applied based on heredity and wealth. Theoretically these barriers did not exist in the Chinese system. In all cases, even in democratic Athens, the political rights being referred to here, only applied to male citizens. But as this was a global constant of the ancient civilized world it should not be viewed as a negative factor in the Chinese system. Rather, this society should be praised as having the only system that allowed the son of a poor farmer to become a top official in the emperor’s court. Nowhere else was this possible.

In contrast to this view, Dr. Wittfogel concluded in 1938 from his studies of exam records: “Some ‘fresh blood’ may have been absorbed from the lower strata of society by means of the examination system; but on the whole the ruling officialdom reproduced itself socially more or less from its own ranks. The Chinese system of examinations had a very definite function; but… this function is by no means what popular legend has thus far made us believe it was. As Wittfogel stated, it seems likely that on the whole there was not enough potential social-mobility to call this system democratic. There were too many limiting factors that would factor into the plausibility of a commoner becoming an official. While the exams where open to all Chinese men, they were very expensive to take part in. Besides the cost of taking the exams themselves, there were other, more extensive costs. Men might study half their lives for these tests and usually tutors would be required, not to mention the cost of simply supporting the person who was devoted to study and thus not work. It is doubtful that a poor farmer in an outlying province could afford to support a son who did not work, who may need a professional teacher, and who would then require the money needed to get to the city in which the exams were taking place. Instead it would be the middle class that was in a position to enter into political equality with the established wealth families. The middle class family would have both the incentive to improve their status and the material means to do so.

In effect the Civil Service Exam System, which in theory allowed for greater equality of opportunity among the Chinese masses, did not on the whole provide it. By the time of it collapse in 1912 the examination system was creating opportunities very similar to those in 19th century Europe. In both cases the middle and upper classes would come to share power in a type of democracy; while those of the lower class were, in both cases, generally left out of the political power distribution. This process of democratization began a thousand years earlier in China then in the Europe, but by the 20th century the exam system had fallen behind the west.


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The Imerial Chinese Civil Exam System. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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